So, you’ve prepared several questions for your interview, and now you move to planning its structure. No matter how you proceed, your interview will have at least these three components: an opening, the body, and a closing.
The opening sets the tone for the interview, explains what’s happening, gives both sides a reason to be motivated and involved. There’s a two-step process for an opening:
1. Establishing rapport. That is, goodwill and trust between two people. How do we do this? Introduce yourself, greet them (warmly). Include the nonverbal (handshake, smile, nod, pleasant voice). Make some small talk (weather, mutual acquaintances, sports, news).
Some notes about small talk: First, no politics. Second, it’s easy to overdo and sometimes difficult to cease. Be firm about beginning the interview proper, if needed. Also, some of us are not good at this, so prepare for that (out of your research) just as you prepare your other questions. If you feel you're not a good small-talker, stay safe and don't push it.
Don’t assume too much similarity or familiarity between you and the interviewee. In these heightened circumstances, it’s easy to make these assumptions. If you are of similar age, gender, appearance, background, culture, etc. — don’t assume too much in common based on these surface traits. You can let your guard down and walk into a blunder, or simply assume a bond that doesn’t exist and wind up being frozen out.
2. Orient the other party. Explain the purpose of the interview, how long it might take (a very important thing to state upfront!), how the information you’re gathering will be used, why this interviewee was selected, etc.
For the body of the interview, it can be helpful — especially for in-depth inquiries like these — to craft an interview guide. This is an outline of the topics to be discussed. This is not necessarily a list of questions. I highly recommend this approach — more topical bullet points than fully written-out questions — because if you sit with a list of specific questions then you are more likely to (a) not listen and (b) only ask those questions. But you need to feel comfortable and appear confident, so use whatever facilitates that for you.
This process is where you consider what information you need to acquire and what is the best route to that information. That is, you need to figure out how to order your questions and the topics to be covered in an interview. Difficult or complex questions might be better later in the interview. You might have several tough questions, and you don’t want to throw them all at your interviewee one after another, so you’ll structure the interview with some rhythm (easy, hard, easy, hard, etc.). You’ll need to consider the time you’ll have, and schedule your topics accordingly, perhaps having an extra list of things to cover if you wind up with extra time (or putting in bold the topics you absolutely must cover, if time runs short and you have to skip ahead).
Click here to see an interview guide I used last term as part of a documentary project.
Closing the interview — Do not merely put down your notebook and say, “Well, that’s about all I have. Thank you!” An interview closing is not something you just tack on or use as an escape pod. A closing has three functions:
There are several closing techniques to keep in mind and employ:
Offer to answer their questions. The role of interviewer and interviewee may switch back and forth between the interview parties through the dialogue, but the closing is an opportune moment to show willingness to do so, to offer up some of that control to the interviewee. “Do you have any questions for me?” or “… about what we’ve discussed?”
Clearinghouse questions. Closings are made for these. See my magic-bullet clearinghouse-Q mentioned earlier.
Signal that your time is up. If you or your interviewee agreed to a time limit in advance, stick to it. If you need to schedule more time, do so now. If you have to end the interview for other reasons, be honest about it — “I’m sorry, we’ve got to end now, I have a previous appointment” — instead of fidgeting or looking pained.
Wrap up the small talk from your opening. If they mentioned they were about to go on vacation, come back to it. “So, when do you leave?”